Running Ahead (The Long Run 2013 Dec)

futureWe’ve seen the future. And we’re running in it. From the 1960’s 2001, A Space Odyssey to last summer’s Oblivion, running has really gotten a lift from the science-fiction film genre. To be clear, I’m talking about running for fitness rather than running from good-ideas-gone-wrong or alien giants whose slumber we, in our naïve curiosity, cavalier ignorance or profiteering spirit, have disturbed. The origins of the space-running concept are easily traceable. Astronauts need to get in shape to undergo the rigors of launch. And astronauts need to stay in shape to forestall the atrophy of zero and low-gravity environments and shake off cabin fever. Enter fitness running. I’m uncertain as to the actual extent NASA’s early astronaut-training program incorporated running, but in film, when Apollo crew members aren’t needing to keep their lunch down in g-force centrifuges, they’re often sighted bonding over beach runs or undergoing clinical treadmill tests followed by the brazen Hi-C guzzling product-placement scene. As the sci-fi film genre grew to embrace more science and more fiction, human-sized hamster wheels and giant artificial gravity rings (with painted-on running tracks on their inside hub) have become the stock stuff of science-fiction sets, allowing actors and actresses the perfect opportunity to show off their future-fit bodies (CGI abs and all) in fashion-forward Spandex.

It all looks cool at the Hollywood 16 Theatre or on our Bluerays, but what might the future really have in store for running? What do you say we do a little exploring?

A Moon Marathon? A Mars Marathon? Apart from their being some nifty alliteration in the business, these ideas don’t have a lot going for them. This isn’t to say that some intrepid athlete in a bid to secure a place in the history of extreme-running (with an 80-year-old Dean Karnazes or Scott Jurek as coach, maybe, and mountains of corporate endorsement money), won’t pull off a low-gravity, off-world marathon, but I don’t see it ever going viral with the public. Think a city marathon is expensive and tricky to orchestrate! How many runner/amateur astronauts do you suppose will be able to afford the seven-figure race entry fees for the mother of all destination marathons? Yeah, about that many. For those of our offspring whose lives won’t be complete until they’ve left their running footprint on a dead world, Antarctica should be available for the not faint-of-heart. But just think: if you could run a marathon on the Moon, you’d weigh something like 25-35 lbs.–with your space-suit on.

A two-hour marathon. Definitely doable. I believe that within the lifetime of most who read this piece, the two-hour marathon will be broken on a certified (terrestrial) course. Based on historical precedent, we can expect this to involve a crew of prominent sports physiologists, sports psychologists, coaches and pacers in support of an extremely talented and audacious individual. Runners have been zeroing in on this target for a decade now, occasionally posting times in the 2:03-2:04 range. The time is ripe for our toppling this barrier within the next two decades. Historically, once the barrier falls, runners will follow the feat in relatively quick succession. Once Roger Bannister had proven that running a sub-4 minute mile wouldn’t kill a man (as lore required), runners began to break the barrier with increasing regularity (saying a lot for the role of mind in running). Today the world’s best male milers clock times in the low to mid 3:40s. Probably not long after the two-hour marathon barrier is broken, a woman will run a sub-4 minute mile, 12 seconds and change off the present mark.

Holographic training: Absolutely. Bored with your training? Zoom down to your local running store and purchase a holographic recreation of the 2035 London Marathon, replete with encouraging spectators and Gatorade cups littering the ground. Play it in your holographic theatre synced to your interactive treadmill. Still bored? Run right through that guy in front of you and watch him do that twitchy electronic glitch thing. If that doesn’t cure your training doldrums, nothing will. Remember, only boring people get bored.

Deep space running: I support space exploration as much as the next guy, but with advancing years and advancing knowledge, I’m growing skeptical. Skeptical of manned missions, anyway. Sending 175 lbs. of biomass (an average male astronaut) into deep space is, regardless of how easy it’s made to look in film, a rather low-tech idea that flies in the face of Einstein’s physics. Sending your yet to be born great-grand daughter to Tau Ceti for the next intergalactic convention might make as little sense as your flying a privately-chartered jet to Mumbai for an hour-long meeting when teleconferencing is an option (at a minute fraction of the cost). Deep space is a medium that favors unmanned space probes, artificial intelligence and bits of information travelling at light speed. No deep-space biomass, no deep-space running. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.

A fit population. The jury is out. For every hopeful indicator, there’s a countervailing indicator. More people than ever are entering races of all distances, including marathons and ultras. This trend seems likely to continue. And at the same time more people than ever are overweight or obese. And this trend seems likely to continue. How will it end? Like a good sci-fi film (and yes, there have been a few), this plot finds us suspended between alternate endings. One ending is best represented by a spiral—“the curve of life,” as one Renaissance man described it. Now we see the line tending forward, and now backward, but like a spiral staircase, the whole rises throughout its forward and backward motions, topping out on a higher level. The other way ends in stark dualism: there’ll be the very fit, and there’ll be the very unfit; and they’ll live on separate worlds (or they might as well) in disharmony.

In sci-fi, the outcome usually hinges on the courage and commitment of a single hero. Nudge, nudge. (Enter heroic music) You know what to do. Run. inspire. The future may depend on it.

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